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The Need for Esoteric Languages.

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Caution: When I mean esoteric, I mean non-mainstream as opposed to things like INTERCAL or brainfuck.

The first thing that anyone who gets to know me in a professional capacity seems to find unusual about me is that I can program in a couple of languages that are very non mainstream. Things like Haskell and Smalltalk. They consider that its a rather time wasting if not an utterly useless hobby.

One thing that a friend of mine asked is that why is there even these languages in the first place as no one even practically uses it. That’s one question that I have never bothered to ask myself, in-spite of getting to play with more than 20 or so languages. He considers that languages such as Haskell are practically useless in the sense that there is almost no mainstream development going on and there is very little point in even trying to develop new ones.

Being a language enthusiast I came up with a plethora of standard reasons that language enthusiasts do. Trite boring old reasons like productivity, higher expressive power and what not. Then there were always reasons which I dish out, in a half-believing manner like how if it weren’t for Sun’s marketing muscle smalltalk would have been the order of the day and things like that. But what struck me unusual was the part of the question about what purpose if at all any, do they serve, apart from satiating the bloated ego’s of self-proclaimed language enthusiasts.

But only on some deeper thinking could I answer that question myself in a much more clearer manner. Either through short sight or arrogance I’ve never seen this angle. They are fertile breeding grounds for newer ideas, paradigms and sometimes even ground breaking innovations in the way we program (as opposed to just newer linguistic constructs). It is entirely plausible that those same innovations come from the mainstream languages, and once in a while they do – like STL for instance. But generally they don’t.

That in my opinion is the bane of any mainstream language. Mainstream languages by virtue of being mainstream have a tradition in the way which things are done. Style guides, language restrictions, limits of the runtime or other restrictions. New innovations even if they are good need a lot of pushing from within a community to gain any acceptance. On the other hand, in fringe languages like Haskell or ML there is lesser community inertia if any at all and they can easily push newer innovations, its much easier to fork into newer territories or basically explore the unexplored.

These are not just fringe languages like I’ve referred to them before, they are in fact frontier languages. They are usually at the edges of current paradigms and sometimes they just fall over the edge flat without ever coming up with anything new. On the other hand sometimes truly interesting ideas come out of it. Many a time, these ideas are incorporated into older, more mainstream languages. But once in a while, there comes an idea or a philosophy that’s associated with a language that’s so different, ground breaking and amazing that it simply is not possible to do the back-porting anymore. Then the language has no choice but to go mainstream – case in point is that of Ruby and Ruby on Rails.

That’s what we need those esoteric languages for. That’s where these language enthusiasts come in. They are the ones who will discover the next big thing. That’s precisely the need for esoteric languages.

Signing Off,
Vishnu Vyas.


Written by vishnuvyas

November 21, 2006 at 12:11 pm

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